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On Ferguson, faith and the fight for equality

“As a nation and a people, we must continue to lay down the burden of race,” says civil rights attorney, preacher and church elder Fred Gray. “We must continue our efforts to tear down all barriers which keep us from our full potential as human beings.”

For Gray, 84, the ongoing struggle for equality is deeply personal. Born in segregated Montgomery, his father died when he was a toddler. His mother believed in the power of education and sent him to Nashville Christian Institute, a boarding school in Tennessee.

As he completed his law degree, he promised himself that he would work diligently to end racial segregation in his hometown, Montgomery, Ala. He took on the cases of Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks — both charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to give up their seats on a bus to white passengers. Parks’s case sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted for more than a year and led to the desegregation of the bus lines.

In 1960, he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Gomillion v. Lightfoot about the unconstitutionality of Tuskegee, Ala., rezoning laws that would have kept black citizens from having a voice in elections. In 1975, he filed suit on behalf of survivors of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment of the 1930s. His clients received compensation and proper health care.

Gray has served as a preacher for the Newtown Church of Christ in Montgomery. In 1970 he won an election to Alabama’s state legislature and served through 1974.

Have we made any progress since the Montgomery bus boycott 60 years ago?

We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress. I’m the first to admit that.

Go into any city hall, county office, state office, federal office in our part of the country. When I started practicing law 60 years ago, you saw no people who looked like me in any of those offices except those doing menial janitorial work. There were no professional persons. There were no African-Americans enrolled in any of the institutions of the historical white schools and universities, not to mention on faculty or staff, only in menial positions.

We still have a long way to go. If you want to know where there is a lack of diversity, look at your home. Look in your church. Look in your place of employment.  Look at the persons with whom you associate on a day-to-day basis. And if all the persons you deal with on a day to day basis look just like you, you may have a lack of diversity.
Considering the protests and violence in Ferguson, Mo., New York, Baltimore, how can law enforcement and citizens trust each other?

At 84, I don’t think it’s my responsibility to tell the government or anyone else how to solve these problems.

I think my responsibility is to call to their attention that we still have these problems, and if people are people of good will, they will acknowledge that we have the problems and they will be willing to find ways and means of solving them.

I don’t think this country has ever really, seriously, taken a real good look at racism and asked, “What can this nation do to destroy it?”

Until we get that attitude and decide we want to destroy it, there’s going to remain an undercurrent that will continue to eat away at us — whether it’s in the form of law enforcement, whether it’s in the form of disparity in healthcare or whatever.
How have you dealt with prejudice and bias against you? 

I never looked at it as if it was just against me. I looked at it as a racial problem against a whole race and I was just one little individual.

It was far greater than just the individual, and that’s why my whole idea wasn’t just to do something for Fred Gray. It was to try to change conditions that I saw as they existed when I was an upper teenager.

I think that, with a lot of help along the way, we’ve been able to help to change some of that.
Do you think we may be at the beginning of a new stage of the civil rights movement? 

I don’t know about another stage.

Every year the National Urban League produces a “State of Black America” report to the President on the condition of African-Americans in this country. The different indexes in that report show that there is still a substantial disparity between persons of color and the majority in aspects from infant mortality to health care to employment.

Unfortunately, in some instances those areas are widening instead of narrowing.

The nation needs to look at these disparities. While all of them are not the result of race, many of them are byproducts of race, and we need to work on solving those problems.
What are your thoughts about race relations in our churches? 

I have always felt that churches should have been the ones leading the way. We say that we are the church that the Lord established, and I believe that. I preach that. We ought to be the ones leading the way — and we have not led the way in many instances.

I concluded a long time ago that I was not going to devote my time and my effort in filing lawsuits to try to make religious people do the right thing. If they can’t do it by understanding what God’s Word teaches, it’s going to be solved by somebody else.

In 1974 in Tuskegee, the white church and our black church saw no reason why we shouldn’t just go ahead and meet together and worship together. There was a small handful of white ones and a small handful of black ones. Put us all together and we still didn’t have a handful.

But, in any event, people can do it if they want to do it and if they’re willing to make a plan.

Filed under: Dialogue Features

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